Waste Management

Most of my life I didn’t really give any thought to what happens with waste – it was all somehow transported away from the home and magically disappeared. Moving into a village home changes that. Nothing happens magically – everything needs to be consciously handled.

Waste Basics

Garbage is pretty easy. All food leftovers are either fed to animals or tossed into a compost pile. Glass containers are all kept and used for storing preserved foods. Plastic containers are used sparingly, and when possible used for short-term storage (like milk!). We haven’t had any aluminium cans in our lives in many years and we don’t expect a comeback.

This leaves three kinds of waste:

  • Grey water is water that comes from sinks, showers, washing machines, etc.
  • Black water is water that comes from toilets (discernible from grey-water due to the potential presence of feces or feces-related bacteria).
  • Solids that comes from toilets (including toilet paper).

The most common solution to these three wastes in standalone houses is usually a septic tank with an optional leach-field. A septic tank accumulates all the waste and needs to be emptied periodically. If liquids are filtered out of it using a leach-field then it can be emptied less frequently.

Grey water can be treated separately using either mechanized filtering systems or with organic solutions such as constructed-wetlands (or marsh fields) where a combination of soil and plants are used to clean the water to the point that it can be either reused (the uses depending on the level and quality of filtering) or simply released back into the ground.

Composting Toilets

The most simple and ecological solution for toilets are composting toilets. Basically these are storage containers with a top that looks like a toilet. There is no flushing mechanism – waste drops directly into the container. The basic premise of composting toilets are that if (1) liquids need to be separated from the solids; (2) there is proper ventilation; (3) the remaining solids are allowed to settle (in a cycle that takes 12-18 months – which means that fresh materials shouldn’t be added to it) then they will decompose into an excellent compost materials (about 10% in volume from the original waste).

Simple composting toilets can be self constructed. Their containers need to be manually emptied out into composting piles. Ready made composting toilets come with engineered containers that make the emptying process at least psychologically easier.

There is a very wide range of products and solutions under the name of “composting toilets” – I recommend you look around – it is an educating inquiry. One interesting solution I came across is called a trench-arch (explained in this PDF) – it is an improvised solution that was created by Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions for churches that do not have sewage access . I contacted Nick to inquire about the trench-arch and he replied that it is not suitable for the capacity of waste generated by a household.

Composting toilets are super ecological since no water is wasted on flushing and there is no waste – just compost. But the greatest challenge for us has been a mental one – the lack of flashing and having to carry out waste is, at this point in time, not appealing to us. So we are seeking a middle-ground to combine flushing and composting – which brings us to composting systems.

Composting Systems

In this section I will be describing a certain kind of composting system – a kind that I have grown familiar with and that we are considering for our house. There are other solutions out there and I encourage you to do your own research – and would be grateful if you come back and share your discoveries in the comments of this post.

Had money not been an issue we would probably go with a solution called an Aquatron (a complete system will cost us ~2500 euro). In this kind of system the toilets are unchanged – they standard water-flushing toilets (though we will be trying to find water-efficient “low-flush” toilets. The Aquatron system is made up of three strategic parts:

  1. At the heart of the system is a patented separator that uses centrifugal force to separate liquids and solids – the genius of it is that is requires no electricity and has no moving parts.
  2. The solids are then deposited in a rotating container that is separated into 4 chambers. The container is rotated once every 3 or 4 months so that filled chambers are isolated and allowed to rest and decompose. The decomposition process is accelerated by adding earth-worms.
  3. The liquids are funnelled through an ultra-violet filter and can then be treated as grey water.

Disclaimer: There is an excellent video of an installed and working Aquatron system – complete with the resulting compost (and other interesting videos!). I do however feel obliged to point out that I feel that the project to which I am linking, despite demonstrating some of the most advanced ecological systems available, is anything but ecological. It is a hugely wasteful construction project that does not in anyway exemplify my understanding and experience of ecological awareness. So … onto the video.

For us money is an issue so I am looking for a way to use just the Aquatron separator (~600 euro) with a self-built container. This video of an installation of another composting product demonstrates the core concept of a rotating composting container:

I also came across this website which offers detailed plans for creating your own rotating container. I haven’t purchased the plans yet – but it does seem like a reliable and feasible solution which will enable us to benefit from an affordable and ecological – part purchased, part do-it-yourself – composting system which together with a reed-bed system will provide us with an encompassing solution.

Our Home Land

Side story: One expression of our attempt to be focused and clear about finding land where we can create a home manifested the week after we arrived in Romania. Andreea began to purchase a local advertisements newspaper “Piata” which is published every Tuesday. She began to look at real-estate options so we could get a sense of what was out there. We didn’t make any calls or go to see anything. Some weeks later when we had an initial sense of what we were looking for, Andreea began to put together a spreadsheet list of potential properties. She would review it every week, update properties that were re-advertised and add new ones. Over a couple of months this gave us a sense of how long properties were on the market and changes in their asking prices. Still we didn’t call anyone or go to see anything … though by now we were beginning to feel a little guilty about it.

After our trip around Cluj we were geared up to dig our hands deeper into real-estate dirt. We were now focused on two areas – Cornesti (where Andreea’s phone number began, and maybe still is, circulating) and Mociu. Mociu appealed to us more then Cornesti – it felt more spacious, lighter and younger – and it came to us by surprise! So Andreea began to make some phone calls. One of the calls left Andreea exhilarated – she described a charming conversation with an old man looking to sell 10 hectares of land in Mociu. Andreea was all giddy with excitement – for no logical reason – though we’ve both learned to recognize and appreciate that when this happens to her we’ve come across something good.

Later that week, last Friday (February 18th) Sabin and Ina once again came to our karmic rescue. They borrowed a car from a now mutual friend (thank you sooooo much Alex) and we drove together, the four us and the land-owner, to see the land.

Mociu is about 40km (30 minute drive) east of Cluj. The name Mociu relates to both a communa (an area that encompasses numerous villages) and the central village itself. It feels like a developed village – it’s center feels like a living public place (not a typical village scene) – including kids walking around (even less typical). At the center of the village we took a left turn and the property we came to see is about 2km removed from the center. Now is a good time to let some images do the talking.

We couldn’t arrive directly to the house with the car because the final segment of the road leading to it will only be completed this coming spring. So we drove into a nearby field and began walking in.

It sloped and led us to a small bridge over a small stream

and this is the view that opened up before us (slightly to the left/north because a blinding sun was shining down on us from the south) – it’s a panorama – so you are welcome to click on it to see more (that invitation extends to the other panoramas on this page as well).

We continued, passed one property where a young farmer greeted us and arrived at our designated property – this image looks back at the path we took to the property – the land on the right hand side is one of the agricultural hectares belonging to it.

and just passed it is this:

from left to right: garage (red doors), summer kitchen (pink walls), main house (long blue structure), and finally a barn (great space for all the wood working in our future) … and there are smaller structures for firewood, pigs and chickens. Both the main house and summer kitchen are built of thick cob walls. The other two structures were built in recent years. The whole “complex” is perfectly oriented with protection of both a hill and trees on the north and then complete opening to the southern sun. It is also hooked up to electricity and telephone lines (no gas and no sewage).

Across the “street” (to the left) are 6 additional hectares sprawling up a gentle hill of land and a water well (amazing water!):

The summer kitchen is a small structure with one room and a stove installed behind one of it’s walls (with access from within the room)

And this is the main house – a 60 year old structure which testifies to the strucutral quality of both the land and the construction.

We wouldn’t want to live in this house but we are also not happy to tear it down. It’s also very useful for us for living in while we build the main house. We are considering leaving it as is for now and maybe using it as a basis for the Feminitate center we have envisioned.

To the east of the entire complex is a beautiful clearing where we could easily envision our house being built.

We fell in love with the place and speak of it as ours.

For those interested in the workings of Karma here’s one amazing fact about this place. I didn’t know this until we arrived back back in the city and parted from Ina and Sabin – that’s when Andrees told me about it. This was the first real-estate listed in Andreea’s spreadsheet. It has been with us, waiting for us, from the first weeks we arrived in Romania. We had to patiently follow a trail of clues for it to appear before us.

By the way … the property to the east of us (just beyond the clearing above) is also for sale 🙂

Journey Around Cluj

Last Saturday (Feb 12) was an exhaustive and hugely fruitful day. We hired a taxi driver to tour around Cluj to get an impression of the lands in the area.

Side-story: When we landed in Cluj, over 3 months ago, we exited the airport and wanted to take a taxi to the city. We were heavily loaded with luggage and the second taxi in the taxi queue was a station-wagon car which could have taken all of our things (the first taxi was too small) and so we approached the driver. He couldn’t help us because there is no way out of the queue (it is blocked in) until you are the first car and he suggested we consider taking two separate cars. We opted to wait and a few minutes later someone took the cab ahead of us and we were good to go. The driver, Florin, was very friendly and curious. Four days later when we moved into our apartment we called him to help us move our stuff. Florin, the first person to greet and service us in our new life here, was also our countryside-tour driver.

Following some suggestions from our architect (who also sent us to see Suceagu) we headed out in a south-west direction. Our first stop was a 25 minute drive from Cluj (timed from the Pollus mall exit) somewhere between Savadisla and Finistel:

The villages in this area are surrounded by hills and mountains – which makes them windy and cold. When we stepped out of the car to take these images we were met with some of the most severe cold we’ve experienced since we’ve arrived together with very strong wind and hail. Apparently, in this area, this kind of weatther can strike out of nowhere throughout the year. Lands in the area seem to be relatively small in size and expensive. According to Florin prices are 30-50 euro per sqm because local politicians are intent into making this into a touristic area. Andreea made some phone calls later to advertised real-estate and the prices were indeed on that level. Many of the villages in the area are Hungarian speaking. Though we were happy to be out of the city and into a village setting we did not feel welcomed.

Andreea and I looked at each other and decided to follow our instincts. We asked Florin to turn around and to head back towards Cluj and towards Cornesti which is an area north of Cluj that seemed to call out to us. As we were driving back towards the city Andreea explained to Florin what we are looking for and he confirmed that the Area we were in was not suitable and that Cornesti was.

As we were exiting the city on the other (eastern – Airport) side Florin invited us to make a stop at his house for a cup of coffee. We did and it as a lovely visit. We met his wife and saw how what was once a village was slowly being swallowed into a suburb of the city. We also got to see a proud Florin show us his new self-built house. Though it is a typical brick-built house it was impressive and inspiring to see that indeed self-building is feasible. Florin built his house over a period of 5 months.

We then continued about 20 minutes up the road heading north from Cluj until we took a left turn towards Cornesti. Within 2 minutes Andreea and I were both smiling and our bodies were at peace. Beautiful area, great energy … this was much more like what we were looking for.

… and spectacular agricultural lands

We came across this house which had a “for sale” sign on it – it was a small house sitting on about 2 acres of land. Andreea called and inquired about the asking price was 12k euro – which we felt was unjustified!

Towards the end of the Cornesti village (Cornesti is also, as is typical in Romania the name of the area which includes numerous villages) we saw these two beatiful strips of land (left and middle of the image – probably ~1 hectare each), we got out of the car, I looked at them and said to Andreea “I want these”.

On the way we back we stopped and Florin and Andreea got out to talk to one of the villagers (I took the image from inside the car). He showed them an additional plot of land and told them that the two strips we liked belonged to two quarrelling brothers.

Side-story: EVERYONE warned us to hide my being a foreigner – as that would cause a sharp increase in the price of land. So where possible I stayed out of the way or to the side. Florin was generously helpful standing in my place with Andreea (at one point he said that her being a woman on her own may have the same effect of me being a foreigner). I will write up a separate post accumulating some tips on looking for land here, but for now suffice to say you should be talking to people in three places: the pub, the church and the local grocery store.

We headed out of Cornesti happy and hopeful. There was still daylight and Florin wanted to take us to see another area and we gladly agreed. We drove back to the main road and continued a bit further north towards Gherla and then headed out of the city on a road that curved south-east and then south-west. It was a very scenic road.

We eventually arrived at the soft, abundant hills of Mociu.

Mociu felt more spacious and vibrant then Cornesti and we fell in love immediately. It was clear that Florin loved the area, I have a feeling he would also love to move to that area. We were really confident in the advice Florin gave us (we learned a lot on the way) – he understood us and we connected – and in the end we realized that what we should have probably done is simply asked him to show us his favorite places.

It is now a week later and we have found the land of our dreams – the place where we are going to build our home. It is in Mociu but that deserves a separate post … coming up soon 🙂

First Steps in Woodworking

Following a lengthy study-journey on wood-framing as a basis for hemp-lime construction I have recently begun looking into carpentry as a preparation for outfitting our future home with custom made furniture.

At this point I am approaching woodworking with a practical outlook – we’re going to need kitchen cabinets to place our sink so that we can have running water and we are going to need a simple raised-platform to place our sleeping mat. Practical means we’re going to need some things during the construction process itself – they have to be simple for us to build on site.

This is an important point because woodworking also has an artistic and meditative side to it and though we may eventually have a space for this kind of woodworking – this will only come at a later time. Right now I am focusing on extracting the most practical, feasible, accessible, efficient and affordable information I can find. This includes design, materials, tools and techniques. I believe this is important because I have found that if I lose sight of this objective I can get pulled in different directions that dissipate my energy and focus.

This is a list of some of the online resources I have been spending time with:

Though I try to avoid anything Google wherever possible, Sketchup keeps coming back as a useful tool so:

One of the most basic tools in wood-working is a workbench – and as many seem to have done, I too plan to design and build my own. There are tons of designs and ideas out there – but again I am finding myself having to filter them out through my needs, abilities and priorities. Following are a few resources I have set aside (I have rejected many more!) to use when I get around to building my workbench: